Health Fears May Slow WiFi Advances in Schools

Published April 29, 2004

The board of School District 97 in Oak Park, Illinois thought installing wireless computer (WiFi) networks in elementary school classrooms was progressive and cutting-edge.

But in an action that may soon be emulated elsewhere, three sets of parents who believe the network is a menace to their children are suing the district to have it removed.

It all began when a local activist contacted parents after she “noticed some tall, ugly towers going up over the schools in Oak Park,” wrote plaintiff Ron Baiman in the newsletter of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. A bit of Internet research turned up some alarming studies purporting to show radio frequency radiation similar to that used in wireless networks could break down DNA or damage the protective barrier surrounding the brain. An appendix to the complaint lists 28 such studies.

John Moulder, a professor of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin who has followed the scientific literature on radio frequency radiation for several decades, believes the parents have been frightened by an unrepresentative sample of the research. In addition to methodological problems with several of the studies, he says, “some have failed multiple attempts at replication, and many are contradicted by other larger studies. I believe the technical term for this is cherry picking.”

The parents’ complaint also contends Federal Communications Commission standards cover only the “thermal” effects of RF radiation, rather than potential biological effects such as harm to DNA strands. Bruce Romano, associate chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, says that’s because the agency “has not been able to determine that there is any reliable evidence of nonthermal health effects.”

Baiman, father of two girls in the Oak Park school system, believes both Moulder and the FCC are unduly influenced by the wireless industry, and that “the prudent, rational thing to do is to say, ‘Whoa, let’s hold off.'” Others argue we already have decades of experience with sources of RF radiation, from TV sets and microwaves to cellular phones.

Whichever side is right, risk-averse school administrators around the country may feel that, until the case is settled, it’s better to fall behind the technological curve than risk a lawsuit.

Julian Sanchez ([email protected]) is assistant editor for Reason magazine (